WASHINGTON – U.S. President Donald Trump’s effort to bar citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries has provided, up until now, the main barometer of how his administration is viewed in the Islamic world. But Trump’s decision to fire 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian air base, in response to the latest chemical weapons attack by President Bashar Assad’s forces, is likely to provide another — perhaps more revealing — indication of who stands where.
To former U.S. government officials and many Muslims, Trump’s proposed travel ban represents a betrayal of liberal values and offers a recruiting gift to extremists. But, among Washington’s oldest allies in the Middle East — those with the most to gain from a partisan president leaning their way — the response has largely been silence. After eight years of being told what to do by the White House, Trump is seen as a welcome — if potentially unsettling — change of pace.
Saudi Arabia may be the Trump administration’s greatest (albeit silent) cheerleader. The Saudis were never comfortable with President Barack Obama’s overtures to Iran, and were particularly startled when he told The Atlantic magazine that the Iranians and Saudis “need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace.” The Saudis, bogged down in a proxy war with Iran in neighboring Yemen, are elated that Trump is contemplating an increase in assistance to repel Iranian encroachment from their strategic backyard.
It’s a similar story for the Saudis in neighboring Bahrain, the kingdom’s closest regional ally (and one that it supports with free oil). Ever since Sunni-Shiite strife first erupted there in the 1990s, Bahrain’s leaders have accused Iran of meddling in its affairs (despite offering flimsy evidence). When Saudi-led forces crushed Shiite protests on the island in 2011, the Obama administration rebuked Bahrain’s leaders and curtailed arms sales. But the Trump administration, eager to generate manufacturing jobs, has lifted Obama-era restrictions, announcing that it will sell $5 billion worth of fighter jets to Bahrain.
Even in Lebanon, where Iran’s proxy, the Shiite Hezbollah militia, is the dominant political force, the Saudis view Trump as a possible savior whose emerging anti-Iranian policy could strengthen the kingdom’s surrogates.
As Saudi Arabia focuses on Iran, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates are taking aim at the Muslim Brotherhood. And here, too, Trump represents an attractive alternative for these countries’ leaders. The Egyptian government, in particular, blames the Brotherhood — which it overthrew in a 2013 military coup — for all of the country’s ills, from an Islamic State insurgency on the Sinai Peninsula to the country’s economic hardships. Understandably, Trump’s push to designate the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, and prevent it from fundraising in the U.S., resonates strongly with Egypt’s government.
Democracy has made few inroads in an Arab world dominated by authoritarian leaders. But that does not concern Trump, who has shown little interest in liberal democratic norms and the institutions that sustain them. After meeting Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in September 2016, Trump gushed that Sisi was “a fantastic guy” who “took control of Egypt … really took control of it.” Sisi returned the platitudes by being the first head of state to congratulate Trump on his victory. And, just days before ordering the attack on Syria, Trump received Sisi warmly at the White House, praising him for doing a “fantastic job.”
Even Turkey’s leaders, long staunch critics of U.S. policy in the Middle East, have warmed to Trump (who in a July 2016 interview marveled at how President Recep Tayyip Erdogan crushed a coup attempt). The denunciation by Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser, of Fethullah Guelen, a Turkish cleric living in self-imposed exile in rural Pennsylvania, was especially pleasing to Turkey. Erdogan believes Guelen was behind the coup attempt and demanded that the Obama administration extradite him, to no avail. Flynn, writing in The Hill newspaper, argued that the U.S. “should not provide him safe haven.”
Before they became obsessed with Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, Arab leaders often began meetings with U.S. officials by railing against Israel. Trump’s early pledge to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, and his support for Israeli settlements in the West Bank, was particularly alarming to America’s Arab allies. But Trump has since backtracked on promises to move the embassy, and, after meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah in February, changed his position on new settlement construction.
Trump’s now-frozen travel ban has been similarly polarizing. Michael Morell, a former deputy director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, deemed it “a recruitment boon” for Islamic State, while influential Muslim cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi tweeted that the move “kindles hostility and racism.” The Iranian Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, called the travel restrictions “a clear insult to the Islamic world, and especially the great nation of Iran.” (Iraq, one of the other states singled out, was equally incensed by the original order; the other countries targeted were Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen).
Compare those responses with the silence from Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the suggestion of a “fresh start” from Turkey, and the approval expressed by the UAE’s foreign minister.
It remains to be seen how the turn from Obama’s collaborative policy approach to Trump’s more polarizing tactics might affect regional stability, though it is easy enough to speculate. Trump’s ambivalence about the Iran nuclear deal, for example, could have devastating consequences down the road.
So far, however, Trump’s embrace of some Arab leaders, while leaving others alone, suits most Middle East governments quite well. While Western media wax nostalgic for Obama, these leaders, never comfortable with American meddling in their affairs, are relieved he is gone. Regardless of the political heat Trump may be taking for his “Muslim ban,” they have welcomed his agenda. Their voices may be muted now; but, with the U.S. seemingly intent on more robust military intervention in Syria, those rooting for Trump’s success may not be for long.
Barak Barfi is a research fellow at New America, where he specializes in Arab and Islamic affairs. © Project Syndicate, 2017